Few 14-year-old freshmen are ready to play varsity football from day one. Look up and down the rosters of Nebraska’s Class A high schools and you won’t find many with a “9″ listed under grade. Bellevue West wide receiver Zavier Betts was no different.
At least, he wasn’t different initially.
His head coach, Mike Huffman, remembers sending him back to practice with the freshman team early on in the summer of 2016. “Varsity football is a grind,” Huffman said. “It’s not just physical ability. He’s had that since he walked in the door.” It was a mentality that Huffman was missing in Betts.
The Thunderbird freshmen opened play at Papillion-La Vista South. The school is near Huffman’s house, so he decided to attend. By halftime, Huffman had reconsidered his decision. Betts touched the ball five times in the first half and scored three touchdowns.
Huffman called the freshman coach after the game to inform him he’d be losing a player. “He (Betts) wasn’t going to get better playing there,” Huffman said.
Just like that, the rail-thin ninth-grader with a talent for turning short passes into big gains was back on the varsity squad. And Betts’s star, and star ranking, has risen.
He finished the 2016 season a state champion, contributing 20 catches for 254 yards and 2 touchdowns. With that performance came loft expectations and plenty of attention.
During his stellar sophomore campaign, in which Betts caught 57 passes for 1035 yards and 15 touchdowns, colleges came calling.
South Dakota State was in first with an offer, but the FCS school seems to have little shot in signing him. Nebraska, Iowa State, Purdue, and Iowa have thrown offers at Betts. Due to his age, schools were not allowed to contact him directly until September 1 of this year.
Minnesota’s PJ Fleck wasted no time once the ban was lifted. “I got a text on the 1st, “ Betts said. “I got a couple of texts from Coach Fleck.”
It’s not just colleges. Betts says reporters contact him more often than coaches do. At the advice of Huffman, Betts has gotten a second cell phone to deal with the innumerable texts and calls from those who want to know, be they media or recruiters.
The recruiting services have him rated as highly as the 10th among wide receivers in the 2020 class and the 59th-best overall player. It’s safe to say that his offer list will expand and his second phone will get a workout.
But life under the spotlight isn’t always easy. Betts is the standout among his peers, many of whom have the same dream as he does. “I definitely want to go to college to play football, “ Betts says of his goals. “And then, hopefully, one day, try to make the pros.”
His teammates weren’t always so receptive to the four-star ratings and scholarship offers. “There was a little, I don’t want to say resentment or bitterness, but jealousy,” Huffman said. “But as they’ve gotten older and started getting some of their own attention, that’s kind of gone away.”
And Betts wants everyone to gain from it. “With the attention we bring in and the coaches we bring in, they’re also getting looked at,” he said. “So if they work hard enough, they can get a chance to get a scholarship, too.”
Without meeting him, it would be easy to mistake Betts for just another teenager. In many ways, he’s just that.
He speaks plainly, if not flat. He says his interests are football, anime, and staying home. It wouldn’t surprise if he ranked them in that order. “We have to drag him out of his house,” Huffman says.
But then, he appears. He stands 6’3″ tall, or maybe more by now. He weighs in at around 200 pounds, his arms and jaw chiseled; slender but blocky, angular. His hands are almost shockingly big. “He looks like a dang statue,” Huffman says.
Seeing Betts in person provides the context. He might have once been a typical, unready freshman. But time has passed and he’s different.
Not just different from the insecure kid who was briefly sent back to freshman ball. Not just different than the unsure-of-how-the-game-will-go freshman playing for a state title in Memorial Stadium. Not just different than the media-relations rookie who was, in Huffman’s words, “terrible” in interviews.
He’s just plain different.
Zavier Betts is special.
Watch Bellevue West vs. Papillion South (NE) – Friday, September 7th at 7:00pm CDT.